Sheepish thoughts

Let’s play with words for a moment. We speak of feeling sheepish in the embarrassed moments after an obvious mistake. But what if we apply “sheepish” to the quality of human character God finds attractive? God often refers to believers as his sheep but not as his lions, horses, camels, ferrets, or wolves. Is there a lesson here?

In Isaiah 40:11, for instance, the prophet spoke for God: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” There is also the shepherd and sheep poetry of Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” And in John 10 Jesus used the “good shepherd” imagery of Ezekiel 34 to speak of his own ministry—“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

The analogy treats ordinary life as a very rough neighborhood! In Ephesians 6:11, for instance, Paul speaks of life as a spiritual war that calls for believers to wear armor and to fight “against the schemes of the devil.”

So, if we combine metaphors, picture plump, meandering lambs being warned to fight off a lion: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

The broader Bible picture is even less encouraging. It portrays the whole world as a livestock pen owned and operated by a local lion. John reminds us of this: “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). So did Paul in his Ephesians 2:1-3 reminder of how “we all” were once “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”

The good news is that “salvation” represents our being moved from one pen to another! The gatekeeper, Jesus, has a flock the Father has granted to him and these sheep will be spared from the devouring lion.

And that brings us to the double meaning of our term, “sheepish.” Most sheep think their present feeding pen has more appetizing grass than any other pen in the world. Which is to say that most sheep are fully satisfied nibbling at any edible grass that happens to be in easy reach. But a truly devoted shepherd has a bigger picture: it’s not good to have his sheep nibbling grass in a lion’s pen!

So we need humility in order to be properly sheepish. When the good shepherd calls us to change pens, we listen. But some sheep don’t recognize the shepherd’s voice—it’s not at all like the lion’s roaring they already know so well.

Now let’s listen to Jesus speaking as the good shepherd: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:3-4).

I suspect the metaphor clashing—with images of warfare and armor mixing with grazing sheep and a hungry predator—may be too much to track. But that seems to be exactly what God wants us to wrestle with as we hear his voice calling out amid the roaring noise of our world. As some sheep maintain their casual grazing other sheep stop and look around. They’ve heard a voice calling them—and they recognize it as the good shepherd. So they trot over to the gate and enter into safe pasture.

The sheep and lamb imagery isn’t finished here. Later we’ll read in Revelation 7:10 of the multitude, “crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And as the lion, Satan, discovered when he tried to devour Jesus on the cross, he had bitten into a power he couldn’t conquer. The Lamb who is the very author of Life devoured death and broke to the jaws of the author of death.

Every metaphor has its limits but the imagery of the lamb conquering the lion invites more reflection than we may have offered it until now. The power of Jesus isn’t what the world takes seriously—no lamb is ever likely to conquer a lion—but the story of the good shepherd disguising himself as the conquering lamb certainly satisfies all his sheepish people. We listen to his voice and let him do what he does so well: he keeps us safe forevermore.


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